Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor

Sacramento CA, Scluptor // July 2013
I want the struggle to stand upright to be easily perceived; I want the fatigue, vulnerability and weakness to be present, but also a certain resourcefulness...all the realities of our lives— war, political and economical headlines, the struggles that happen out on the streets… all these topics mash up with my interest in posture, gesture, and the rendering of expressions.

As a kid my father and I regularly wrote letters to one another, and when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old he sent me a card with a drawing of a big misshapen jungle cat made from multicolored geometric forms on the cover with a single line written inside. The sentence simply said, “From one animal to another.” He hadn’t written anything else, just that brief, fairly ambiguous sentence. But I’ve always felt like I understood something about those words; I knew that statement was a declaration of his love for me, and I also knew it was somehow an admission of his missteps as a father and a person… and perhaps it was a form of counsel too, a way of hinting to his young daughter that despite being flawed we must endure, persevere. I still have that card— a few years back I framed it and now that single sentence written in his looping cursive hangs on my wall.

When we visited Elisabeth at her Sacramento home studio and I got up close to her large-scale sculptures of slumped, exaggerated animal-like creatures, they brought to mind my father’s card and what I think he might have been trying to say with those words. Using remnants of common materials such as bed sheets, blankets and other discarded domestic fabrics Elisabeth builds her sculptures by cutting, re-sewing, wrapping, and tying layers upon layers of fabric and cardboard onto wooden structures. She says she’s into a “bratty, punk-rock, by hook or crook aesthetic” because there is an urgency to it and a democracy to those kind of materials. In talking with Elisabeth I got the sense that there is a rebellious impulse in her, a refusal to comply with existing orders, and that she utilizes her imagination as a tool to push against boundaries and established notions.

Elisabeth’s sculptures are slightly unsettling— the creatures appear hindered by the weight of the materials and there is a raggedy and downtrodden quality to them, but they also appear resolute, as if no matter what they will hang on by tooth or nail. Elisabeth readily reveals their burdens by purposely exposing the “crutches” (parts of the interior wooden frames) that keep them upright and by leaving some creatures without limbs or giving others heads that are almost too big to support. The effect is that the sculptures look like they are struggling to exist, that at any moment they might quite literally begin to unravel at the seams, and collapse into a heap of rags. They are grotesque figures, monsterish in their distorted proportions and postures, yet this very quality combined with their animal-like personas and brightly colored layers elicits a tenderness and empathy in the viewer. It’s as if they had been dreamed up by the exuberant, baroque and impractical imagination of a child but then set loose in an adult world, expected to make do with all their improbable and wild characteristics. You can’t help but hope that they survive, as they are— bizarre, complex, and entirely imperfect.

What mediums do you work with?
I am currently working with bed sheets, cardboard, paper, paint, matte medium and drywall screws. I get a lot of my materials, particularly the bed sheets and blankets from thrift stores and I like the embedded concepts they carry— childhood, familial history, death, sex, and dreams.

I don’t gravitate towards rarefied materials. I like used, ordinary materials, the kind of stuff that’s sort of thumbing its nose at what might be archival. I’m into that bratty, punk-rock, by hook or crook aesthetic. There is a particular urgency to it, and I appreciate when there is a democracy to materials.

I am also in the process of experimenting with slurry-like coatings made from various ingredients including wood flour, pearlite, and acrylic thickeners. I’m still figuring this medium out; it’s in the beginning stages, but I wanted to bring a ceramic quality back into my work. I have a background in ceramic sculpture so it feels natural to return to it in some way.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I use remnants of salvaged materials to build sculptural objects that are simultaneously layered yet unraveling, put together but still falling apart, familiar but also strange. I would describe them as beleaguered, bedraggled, distressed and distorted anthropomorphic creatures. They seem burdened with a physical and internal history, stretched to some limit, layered with materials building up and tearing off. At the same time, their palette is sweet and often candy-colored, They refer to mascots or over-sized plush animals. They are definitely walking the line between too cute and repellent. The work is not necessarily about “animals”— but I use animal-like forms to investigate our deep historic connections to animals as a motif in literature and morality tales such as the collection of Aesop Fables. The animal forms are a vehicle for viewers, an entry point, a pathway, something familiar to reach for, that hopefully allows them to engage more fully with the less apparent ideas at play. I also work with these forms to convey my engagement in process, materiality and the marks and decisions left by the artist’s hand.

The exaggerated and strange proportions of your three-dimensional “creatures” are at once grotesque and endearing, engendering both tenderness and horror. Can you expand on this tension at play in your work?
Generally, the culture at large, a “happy, feel-good” kind of culture that sates itself with easily digestible media and that avoids bearing witness to uncomfortable truths is part of what I’m attempting to address. I also fully acknowledge that I implicate myself in that tug-of-war as well. The work on one level is really easily accessible, but another level is complex, and tragic. Limbs of these “creatures” may be missing or stretched out and useless. The weight of the materials that goes into making them often requires “crutches” or “walkers” and these are sometimes employed to help them stand. The support system of these sculptures is intentionally awkward and obvious— I want the “crutches” to be visible, I want the struggle to stand upright to be easily perceived; I want the fatigue, vulnerability and weakness to be present, but also a certain resourcefulness. I listen to NPR all day long in my studio. It’s all I listen to.So in my mind all the realities of our lives— war, political and economical headlines, the struggles that happen out on the streets, the urgency and immediacy of constructions by resourceful yet economically challenged populations… all these topics mash up with my interest in posture, gesture, and the rendering of expressions.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I guess in an indirect way… there is an underlying sadness and psychological weight or posture that I naturally sync up with. But they are not self-portraits.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I teach part-time— two art classes a semester at Sierra College in Rocklin, CA and once in a while I teach at UC Davis. I usually teach drawing at Sierra College, but sometimes ceramic sculpture. When I teach at UC Davis, I teach some form of ceramic sculpture. Teaching art can be very exciting, but also very draining in that I aim to seek out each student’s strengths and then try to encourage that person to amplify those understandings, so that the student approaches the technique or subject with confidence. It is a privilege to work with people and guide them into confidence and new understandings about themselves and the world. Ultimately, I find it really rewarding.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Having this studio is a real necessity. It supports my process, the scale of the work and various lines of inquiry. I am a messy studio person. Ideally, I’d like it to be orderly and austere, but I never have enough energy to create that. I drip and spray paint, spray water on pieces to dilute paint, work on every available flat surface, even the floor. I love the detritus and scraps, the aftermaths of the work, and how it piles up in places. I have a wall that is for big 2D stuff, and some work tables that are supposed to be for working, but no matter how much room I have, I tend to squeeze myself into these increasingly smaller work zones.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Larger than Life — the group show I’m currently in, opened at the beginning of June and is up until August 18th at the Bedford Gallery… so mostly I was just focusing on that work. Larger than Life explores how contemporary artists have begun to use new materials and technologies to reshape the traditional scale of sculpture and hopefully will encourage viewers to reconsider the way in which subjects and themes can be represented.

How do you navigate the art world?
I am not very aggressive at reaching out to people; I guess I should be more so. I find that I’m usually occupied to capacity with incoming enquiries and opportunities, people reaching out to me. So I don’t know if I would call it a passive stance, as I do work really hard at building work that reaches people somehow.

In terms of looking at work, I make gallery and museum visits, I look at periodicals; it’s kind of a binge and purge thing for me in that sometimes I want to eat it all up and other times I want to be completely unaware of anything else. So there are times for gathering and times for hunkering down with what’s been gathered. And of course, sometimes these things happen concurrently, but I like to think that there are seasons of looking and not looking.

I find that teaching art connects me to the art world at large…in gathering images and putting together Powerpoint lectures.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I find the gestural, physical, violent wackiness of Joyce Pensato’s work to be particularly resonant along with the materiality and alchemy of sculptor David Altmejd’s work. The wearable constructions of Kim “Mudman” Jones and the early assemblages of Joan Brown are meaningful as well.

Who taught you the most about art?
I credit two people: my mother and Professor Tony Marsh whom I consider a mentor at Cal State, Long Beach.

My mom provided us with the entire library of those Time Life books on the masters of art like Van Gogh and Leonardo, and unlimited felt-tip pens and paper. As a kid I also repeatedly read The Agony and the Ecstasy, the biography of Michelangelo by Irving Stone. Our home was a really encouraging, art-friendly, library-going, book-centric place. As kids we were allowed a lot of freedom to draw and make things, build a treehouse, dig holes, etc. She also decorated the house with actual paintings and etchings, nothing mass-produced. All of these things provided a comfortable place to always be curious and intrigued by the world.

Through critiques, conversations and support Tony Marsh put a lot of confidence in me as a maker of things. He is an amazingly articulate and sensitive person, and his language and communication style allowed me to think more deeply about myself and to see myself as an artist with ambition and personal motivation.

In high school, I had an art teacher who stocked the art room’s magazine rack with nothing but New Yorker magazines, somehow this was really influential, too…the weekly cover illustrations and cartoons…this was in El Monte, California (a working-class suburb east of Los Angeles) by the way, so these New Yorker magazines were pretty exotic.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I just finished up teaching a workshop called Fabric & Physicality at Anderson Ranch, Colorado.

And I have these shows:

The Bedford Gallery Exhibition
Larger than Life: Exploring Scale in Contemporary Art
Show will be up until August 18, 2013.

Santa Clara University Arts Building Gallery
Solo Exhibition
Sept. 23- October 25
Reception is on Oct. 1, 2013.

Santa Rosa College
Robert F. Agrella Gallery
Making Special (group show)
Nov. 13 – Dec. 12, 2013
The opening is on Thurs. Nov. 14, 2013.

Yellowstone Art Museum
March 20, 2014 — August 24, 2014
Face to Face, Wall to Wall (group show)

To see more of Elisabeth’s work:

Charlie James Gallery
969 Chung King Road
Chinatown, Los Angeles, CA 90012